Jan/Feb 2008 Nonfiction

My Only Charlie Brown: One Family's New York City of the '20s and '30s

by Julia Braun Kessler

Photo by Steve Wing

Not so long ago in America, families were families! At least my father's was. His was the commonest immigrant story. Orphans they were—all six brothers, together with an elder sister—who understood priorities! Birth family was foremost among the Browns. Nurturance for spouses, and later their offspring counted too, but only after such obligations had been met! EVERYTHING must take a back seat to those brothers. Their big sister, as I remember it, stood in the background, affectionate and attentive. But those Brown boys survived brilliantly caring for each other as they grew to maturity!

Already married, their sister Csilla had taken them into her own household after the early death of their parents. She raised them along with her own children as one, stipulating merely that among her brothers, the nearly grown ones, Sandor, Herman and Charlie, work to produce what supplemental income they could to make the arrangement serve.

And work they did, skimping and saving. Sandor, always enterprising, managed to put enough together to book a passage for America, that land of gold! He decamped, solemnly vowing to send for them sooner rather than never when he fled Kisvarda, a small town in northeastern Hungary. And he followed through on this master plan. Before too long, he sent Herman's fare, and that brother did likewise, providing passage for Charlie Brown, who in turn brought along Samu, then Frank, and finally my father, Max, who, contrarily, and with a touch of nostalgia for his origin, would step into his New World with his own name, Braun, still intact.

Sandór had lead them to settle in New Jersey's southerly town of Carteret, an industrial region on whose streets German and Magyar were more often heard then than any English voices. At that same time, the whole place was more or less swamp, out of which factories had begun to rise, smoking up a soggy, steamy, foul-smelling landscape where winter days were dark as night, while summertime became unbearably clouded with swarms of fierce mosquitoes.

All that while, Sandór prospered, soon known to most folk as "Cheap John," proprietor of Carteret's general store. He was to be seen from dawn to late night presiding over its aisles, and dispensing counsel in that emporium with every pair of work boots, shoes, or overalls. By the end of his foreshortened life, his reputation amongst his clientele was well-founded: he had grown into a trusted figure loved by most everyone. People were beholden to him, not merely for advice but for the generous credit he gave with it, the thing most needed by those hard-pressed laboring families.

As for the brothers Brown, what he offered them was not much better than indentured bondage. Each soon lost whatever enthusiasm for that condition in an America they surmised was wider and better than those dismal, backwater purlieus of New Jersey. Herman, for one, gradually altered in character in such a sad way that nephews and nieces born to his younger siblings in the end knew him only as their "miser uncle." Yes, he had done his duty; he'd brought his next brother over; but that ended it, and Herman simply vanished from CHEAP JOHN'S, headed east to New York, where he was to be found years later living the life of a recluse, a hermit more or less dependent on his brothers. They never would abandon him to live homeless on the street or in other people's cellars. Yet, their children heard over the years many a grotesque anecdote recited with cruel amusement about that withdrawn, unsociable man.

Their favorite tale, often told, concerned a hole-in-the-corner Hungarian bistro that Herman and all the others frequented. It seems three of his brothers were one day accosted by its head-waiter, who complained he was fed up with that nuisance, Herman Brown. What transpired each night was this: Herman would minutely peruse the menu and protest loudly that every dish offered was scandalously over-priced, his favorite and best dishes outrageously expensive. His brothers were embarrassed; but they put their heads together and came up with a solution. They would prepare and provide a "special" menu to accommodate Herman's perverse miserliness. Notwithstanding that during the Depression years prices were rock-bottom, they printed up for that establishment a set of pris fixe offerings that were next to nothing, mere pennies from soup to nuts. And of course, they promised to make up the difference to the proprietor at the end of each week, which they continued to do faithfully for years on end. The jest proved for them a constant Sunday treat! Poor, deluded Herman would strut and crow of the great deal he had wangled for good dining, mocking them for knuckling under and overpaying those shameless cooks and greedy crooks of Yorkville! "What kind of businessmen did they think they were, anyway?" was his taunt.

Loyal to Herman all those years, yet being who they were, mere peasants, barefoot orphans from Hungary, they laughed cruelly as they observed his descent—for it was illness after all—to a person who scrabbled about in dumpsters and garbage pails, rescuing junk. As his mania deepened, Herman would proudly display finds like busted old opera platters and "useful" empty soup cans or reeking sardine tins, salvage that he was persuaded might somehow come in handy, and which he stowed in the storage bins of my father's paint store on Amsterdam Avenue right up and through the years of World War II.

One day at a family get together, he sidled to my side and held out a cracked recording of Enrico Caruso singing "Vesti La Giubba," referring to unfortunate people he called a "faragatlan ember." He pointed to his temple and made a little circle, casting his glance around them all as they fussed over their now ample portions of food. Then he insisted I take it with me and keep it as a memento I'd one day come to understand. Sometimes I think about that sad and sentimental aria of resignation, that putting on the clown suit, accepting one's lot and going onstage, or going on at all. Yet those Brown brothers, all the while mocking behind his back, must surely have felt the pathos of it, for they remained constant to the day he was found down below in his last cellar refuge, dead on a heap of his precious rubbish.

Next, it was my own Charlie Brown who came among them. There he was, with quite another story to unfold. He too paid off his passage to Sandór and fled to cosmopolitan Manhattan, ambitious not for money-making success but only to promote his name. Ever the "iras tudo," or the literate one, this Charlie Brown must become famous! And lo! my uncle did indeed become a distinguished personage amongst the Hungarian-Jews of New York. In truth, he fancied himself rather a statesman, Mr. Ambassador of Culture was my Charles Brown—and never ceased to act the part.

In the decades of the 1930s and 1940s, all of Yorkville's Magyars avidly read his tabloid, fancifully named EGYLETI ELET, or SOCIETY LIFE. And though they were a miniscule proportion of New York's variegated population, as publisher, he was handsomely served for his presence in that milling and tumultuous world of newcomers. His name was on their lips weekly. It became his world to rule, his alone; and, he grandly managed to enlarge its scope by dint of hammering diligently away at them.

If SOCIETY LIFE recorded rather less than what was shaking the world in those decades, it mattered little. His readers, he declared, knew where they could go to find the "news." His goal as its publisher/journalist-in-chief was to give them what mattered most intimately to their days, and if they didn't scan his pages hot off the press, they'd miss hearing about the real events and affairs that counted most for Magyars.

Call it "bit" news: nothing concerning politics, no attention to national or international stuff and not even local city news. That it passed over those inconsequential matters meant nothing. His spotlight was focused on his community: his Hungarian-Americans must be served.

And served they were. People like himself, who had lost their bearings in the immense geography of the United States, and were quickly losing any sense of their native roots as well, were his daily worry. And, most of all, he cared that the heart and soul was fading fast with the disappearance of their magnificent, and powerful, poetic language, unique in the world. He could let them sink into that amorphous mass known in his day as "Those damned immigrants clogging the cities and invading the middle-American landscape."

Our Uncle Charlie's fear was that such heritage could too easily be reduced to illiteracy—to the ignorance of the farmyard peasantry that all had steadily fled, at least until the American gates closed to them soon after. As he saw it, their pride must be salvaged, together with their finest recollections of a once great Austro-Hungarian empire, a world of civilized Magyars.

Hence it became his permanent agenda: Meet with Magyars, talk with Magyars! Sing and dance a Csardas together! His EGLETI ELET announced these upcoming celebrations: weddings, picnics, Sunday gatherings or dances. He ran columns of praise for the works and days of the Kossuth Lajos Society, named for the martyred hero of the great uprising of 1848. He urged his countrymen to join social clubs, elaborated their programs for the young, as well as the ailing. He announced the real estate opportunities on Long Island, the land newly-purchased to insure cemeteries for Magyar-Jews, all named for the deceased of the many clubs he listed.

He took care to trumpet venues where his true "Magyars" could meet, proposing matches for their youth at resorts in the Catskill Mountains catering exclusively to such scattered Hungarians. He touted upcoming festivals, extolled the native jollity and family atmosphere of those rickety hotels and ramshackle, boarding houses and bungalow colonies around cool lakes and their pleasant meadows.

Of course, this brought in advertising revenue for EGYLETI ELET as well. He could even expand his coverage to the musicals and those heavy-duty melodramas, all flourishing on lower Second Avenue in the New York of that era. Little matter that not all of his readers were versed in Yiddish, the language which played there. What he did was to spotlight a good many of his famously-talented Magyars performing down there, and no matter what language they may have uttered onstage, he knew that for his own readers they remained celebrities!

He saw to scrupulous, detailed listing of Hungarian menus in East Side eateries too, defining what real Magyar cuisine could be located and where to find it at its best! Between Second and Third Avenues, from 79th to 83rd Street, there were any number of such establishments, "etterems" cheap or fancy. Among them, the Debrecen, the Budapest, the Hungarian Gardens, usually teeming the week long with noisy Magyar clientele. You could find a gulyas or tötet kapusta, far better than even your Dear Mama set out at home. Charlie's own hand meant to shape a rich social life, even here in hard-pressing, and high-pressure New York City!

Perhaps it was his own sense of family, or some imagined greater one, that he expressed in all that Magyar trumpery. Who knows what he was thinking? Still, in this vast new world he saw it as his job to urge fellow countrymen to make themselves happy and comfortable on its shore—not to disappear into it by abandoning their earliest loves and Hungaran commonalty! In some strange manner, that fundamental idea was to prove prophetic in years to come, when these lost memories would slip back to such exiles.

Not that there was any possibility of turning back! The "Old Country" daily grew more distant, more remote; soon enough it would be engulfed by the onslaught then overtaking Nazi dominated Europe. Those innocents who had remained behind were fading fast and would be gone altogether. Even while Charlie Brown, in all his naivete had refused to countenance their forgetting by his Magyar Jews.

His mission seems preposterous enough to us today—to bind that distant time and remote place to their present lives—but then, it was very real. Our current generation's easy access to cheap flights anywhere, to worldwide telephone networks, and now to email and instant imaging transport over the internet are commonplace. Still, pondering that past, even of my own lifetime, another perspective altogether looms up. I find myself musing sadly over my mother's loneliness. She, who had left home a bride of nineteen, and voyaged from Hamburg, swamped in the depths of a steerage class passage and crossing the stormy Atlantic with her boy-husband. She, who was already pregnant with my elder sister in the tossing hold of that ship —and who, in all her days to come must live bereft of all parental companionship and solace!

That journey had taken her so far from everything she had ever known that nothing remained of her lost childhood world. All meaning obliterated! That small, remote town of Kisvarda in eastern Hungary might as well have sunk below the horizon on another planet altogether. In silence and stoic courage she suffered, knowing well that all her people would never be seen again by her: for some fifty years their very voices, mother, brothers, all their kin, never once to be heard again, even amid telephone cable static! At that time, there was not a phone was to be found in all that region.

Meanwhile, during the darkening decade of the 1930s her own American family prospered. Notwithstanding that a telephone had been installed within her home, she was helpless, since no one back there in the old country could be reached except by the slowest of overseas posts.

Is it any wonder that Charlie Brown's stentorian clamor was so loud in their ears! By supplanting their losses, he had found his career! He not only immersed his own days and night, but his family's as well in this furious organizing of society with his fanciful SOCIETY LIFE. He even had his brothers coming out to every convocation, clan picnic and cultural affair, all recruited to attend him like a palace guard.

He clambered onto whatever stage or platform was available and called for order and attention. It was something everyone had to put up with, yet for our Brown clan, such were more than regular occasions for mockery and laughter! In plain truth, my uncle Charlie Brown, thinker, leader, organizer, advocate, was a compulsive orator as well and must address every Magyar event, no matter what, demanding the respectful attention due him as the soul of their community!

Alas, the rub! When he opened his mouth out poured a stammer so painful, that each word came with agony. That stuttering, whether in Hungarian or English—if sat for in discreet silence—had people rolling their eyes to heaven. As soon as he drew himself up and opened his mouth, arms flung wide like some orator of ancient days, and sentences began to pour out in lumps of inarticulate phrases as he choked his way from beginning to end. Most barely managed to sit through any of such performances. He might exhort and pronounce whatever it was in sentences that broke and began and broke off again while his brothers slunk along the side walls or paced at the rear, clutching their sides in suppressed laughter.

But there was no controlling us kids; neither frown nor shushing, nor even kicks beneath the table delivered by our abashed mothers and aunts availed. Over the course of a half-hour, eruptions and giggles would come from all over, growing louder and louder. It seems to me, looking back, that, compared to us, his more or less captive audience displayed a remarkable forbearance.

And over the years, such performances were enough to prove poor Charlie a perennial source of laughter, and his immediate relatives dared the deepest unkindness of sheer ridicule. His brothers seemed to have memorized every one of those shows, and could mimic him to a fault. At any rate, he never did show the least sign of discouragement in all his years. Alas, as a very old man, with a damp moustache, he rose, unasked, to pronounce a disastrous and encomiastic blessing at my own wedding!

Soon after Charlie's arrival and prompt escape from Carteret, the next to appear there was Samu, and in no way was dawn-to-midnight service in the general store for him, either. Young Samu Brown's dedication in life was manifested in another direction altogether. A looker, dashing and obviously a determined bachelor, he promptly relocated himself in Manhattan to find better occupation in the discovery of the many of those affluent ladies of Broadway and Riverside Drive! And pursued he was by Magyar femmes of the area, who cropped up month after month, like bees avid for nectar.

A terrifically successful Lothario he proved himself from the first. In no time, he was launched upon the amorous waves that washed up and down Manhattan's upper West Side. Ever an entrepreneur, a wit, a smooth talker, Samu left behind him a long list of contented loves over the years as he moored at one berth or another. Better and better specimens they became as he perfected his style. Even in age, he knew how to ring a doorbell, thrust a box of fine chocolates and a packet of sheerest nylons before him to find warm welcome.

It was only after he died that the family began to probe into these Don Juanlike adventures. Even my very discreet mother blushed—something I had never seen before—as she confessed that our dapper Samu had once "approached," her, or, as the vernacular has it today, put a move on her. By that time, several of her sisters-in-law had regaled her with their secrets of his attempted seductions, and having herself seen the technique, she was unsurprised to learn that old news.

To our innocent adolescent ears, that was shocking stuff. Somehow, in those la di da days, we'd grown up ever assuming that among "Jewish men" such incidents were inconceivable! We fancied that "they," unlike "the others" of the outside world, were not always on the make, and certainly not with women of their own families! Ah, the naivety, together with those others of our still sheltered times! Yet, soon after his death, when it was finally revealed that at least one of my cousins was indeed the fruit of an early success back there in his Carteret days, only minutes after we greeted this news with open-mouth, how quickly did we begin to accept, to believe. To notice a familiarity, as it were, of a young cousin's face and the expression it often wore: indeed, there was no mistaking those ice-blue eyes, which were the hallmark of all those brothers! (But of course, her mother's husband had that trait as well). Was it merely jealous gossip? We'd never know, after all?

The next in line was a more solid, a tall fellow called as Fisly, and promptly renamed Frank when he stepped ashore on Ellis Island. In Frank, Sandór had found at last the successor he'd longed for. Frank settled in at CHEAP JOHN'S, where he worked well and contentedly until he married, whereupon his Americanized wife, the beautiful Celia, a determined woman well into her old age, urged him to open his own general store, and that was only two blocks distant from the old emporium founded by their mentor.

Nonetheless, these Carteret brothers maintained a cordial and warm fraternal relationship during the relatively short time that remained to Sandór, who was the first to fall a victim to the killer of all those Brown men, the heart attack. A nervy, and high-strung lot were they all, and heavy smokers too, which contributed greatly to their inborn vulnerability, or predisposition, for each of them, except for Frank, died in his early 50s. Just as my own father, Max, a two-pack a day man, was taken suddenly down at 52.

The youngest of them all, he'd arrived soon after Frank, and was clearly the least likely of that bunch to stay put in Jersey. Just nineteen, already married and the father of a brand new baby, my elder sister, he openly objected to his new circumstances. After braving oceans into the unknown, he'd hardly expected such a meager life! No, he'd rage to my mother, "Now is my chance! I'd rather peddle in the streets of the big city than stay put here in Carteret!"

An unquiet spirit and something of a nervous cat from the start, he promptly packed himself off, together with his wife and newborn to head across the Hudson and settle them in a walk-up slum way over in the Yorkville of the lower 80's. It was there that two more of us were born.

There too, among those shabby walls, were the many stories of his early antics first recorded while he struggled, seeking means to survive— anything at all to provide gainful employment. Ah, the humiliations, misadventures, disappointments! Yet during the more affluent years to follow, they made for some great laughs! He himself could wildly take off on these early failures.

One such tale has him selling chestnuts to the hordes milling about daily in Times Square. Chestnuts had always been a favorite of his, at least until that day. He'd loved seeing them roasting in the streets of Kisvarda. Thus, in the dead of a first New York winter, he tried it himself, having rented a street-stove and gotten some vague instructions on how to prepare them. The morning was hardly over by the time he'd suffered second degree burns on both arms and face. Lightly hysterical, and whining like any terrified youngster, he just plain abandoned the equipment to run home for instant comfort. What's more, after that he never touched another chestnuts in his life, or even let one go by him without replaying his brutal initiation to "the golden land."

Mostly, he stammered and stuttered about the metropolis, desperately trying one thing, then another that wouldn't work, and all without a language other than his own impenetrable Magyar. After one such trek, exhausted, he took a crowded trolley home, managing finally to find a seat behind a couple of nuns. Given the ancient superstition he'd grown up with in that peasant Hungary, he muttered a curse upon them. According to legend, encountering one nun was acceptable, but two together? Never! A sign of disaster to come!

What followed, and what he regaled his listeners with over the years, was how his outburst was greeted. One Sister turned to deliver it in the finest Budapest Magyar: "Good Sir," she sweetly demanded, "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Mother, what can we have done to deserve such words from a perfect stranger?" This, together with his own punchline, as delivered that day to his startled wife, "I tell you and tell you, Hermina, but you never believe me! Everybody in this country speaks Magyarol! What's the use of studying English day and night?"

Yes, Max faltered, foundered, flopped, but went forward just the same, ending by securing house painting jobs to scrape by on. And, if uninspired, that work served to feed his family for a time. Then, it wasn't long before he could devise a way to improve on his state by expanding clientele, finding more such jobs and appointing himself, not a laborer in the business, but the contractor for it instead.

Carried along by good looks, a flirtatious approach, his own charm, and most of all, his Magyar connections, he prospered. It went well both for him and his family in turn. Still, during those oncoming depression years, Max ended up by partnering with his skull-dugging brother Samu in a joint paint-contracting enterprise to decorate New York apartments. The pair of them set up their establishment in a store situated at 91st Street and Amsterdam Avenue. This they dubbed THE MIDWEST PAINT COMPANY to turn a nifty profit simply by adding their own kind of flourish for a classy Westside clientele. What they did was to hire scores of East European newcomers, preferring skilled craftsman to mere daubers for elaborate and elegant decorations. This device managed to put them in their own niche —a special category among house painters.

Max would cruise the boroughs, always in his snappiest Plymouth or Dodge sedan—how he loved cars!—to solicit landlords. He'd trudge floor after floor of apartments, making contracts to paint, calculating his 'Esti-mates'. Above all, he learned how to clinch a deal! So they did quite well for nearly two decades, and decorated hundreds of elegant apartments, from West End Avenue through Park Avenue.

Not that those years at THE MIDWEST PAINT COMPANY were placid! Max was fixed on controlling accounts; whereas bachelor Samu was inclined to live freely, even wildly, off the profits. Right around Christmas time tempers frayed, what with the usual list of gifts to suppliers and discounts to clients. Add to this, the endless chorus line of Samu's swinging lady friends who needed stroking, as my father put it when he was being polite. What galled him most was that his drivers were delivering these fancy packages to such ladies, all redolent of lavender and glowing with cellophane and ribbons!

Worse still, was Samu's tapping the till and jiggering the books, so that everything was put down to MIDWEST's overhead. So it went year after year, while the brothers yelled and cursed, and sometime hurled paint cans at each other, hawking and coughing cigarette clouds that filled the back room, while their partnership, so far from harmonious, endured. But whatever those Christmas lists cost, in the end it came down to good business. And despite their differences—the way with all those brothers—their bonds frayed, yet never broke.

They thrived in those lean years as their reputation grew among elite Manhattan customers, or so they like to boast. Over that time, and amid all the chit-chat with such socialite clientele who listened to these two, with their heel-clicking middle European manners and their thick, accented speech, they would inevitably be asked about the source of the company's odd designation. Had the family some hidden origins in middle America?

How Max shrugged this off each and every time in disbelief! Their "ignorance" became his joke. Wasn't it perfectly obvious? he'd chortle, "For Chrissake, the business is smack in the middle of Manhattan, and on its West side, so what else should it be called?"

And New York City ever remained for him America itself, the whole of it! Across the Hudson, right along 91st, you could glimpse the Palisades, and that was a territory foreign, unknown to him. In point of fact, apart from summer sojourns up in the Catskills (on this side of the Hudson) South Jersey was a far as he'd ever ventured into this America, or cared to for that matter.

Alas, there did come a time, many, many years later when he reluctantly ventured out to the near Midwest. It happened after driving out casually with my mother to visit me, newly-married and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In my mind's eye, I still see him, pulling up outside our house, utterly exhausted by the two-day drive in his Plymouth sedan, worn not merely from the daunting 450 miles or so he'd gone, or that they had been caught by an unseasonal snowstorm the night before, both of them dressed lightly for that Indian Summer heat they had come from.

For him, the worst misery had come from coping with "those aliens" he encountered on the way—at the service stations and the roadside restaurants, and even that Ohio motel.

Ever playing the New Yorker with what he considered a cosmopolitan hauteur, he'd condescend all that while trying to impress his listeners! This, when just making himself understood through that impenetrable Hungarian accent was achievement enough!

His stance persisted even through his stay with us there in Michigan. while he had his fun scrounging up his deals. His greatest exercise began with the fellow working at the Goodyear Tire shop on Huron Street the very next day after the chap couldn't provide Max with his New York brand of anti-freeze:

"Here's my card. Say the word, and I will have a tanker deliver it by Monday... or you can have a whole truckload of one-gallon-cans. Next week! You'll make a killing with Prestone, it's the best New York brand!" All this declared with a straight face. Oh, he knew how to wind those rubes up, he boasted later.

Yet when all was said and done what actually mattered to Max Braun was his prestige in this, his new world. Dropping names like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia—who had himself insured the job to do the library at City College, or those of his Tammany Hall boss pals, from Councilmen down to mob enforcers, loan sharks and shysters, went with his patter.

He got his kicks from naming eminent East Side clients, and rehearsing over dinner his ingenious decorating tricks. Yearly would he brag of his precious moments with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt advising her just how to pick her colors and finesse her mouldings. Then, he'd come home all puffed up to boast of that gracious lady, "She never fails to ask me, 'Mr. Braun, what would I do without you?'" My mother took it all in with more than a grain of salt: it sufficed her to describe him as her own "painter boss."

Of course, that world's all lost now! Yet, such was the New York those Brown brothers found and thrived in. It was still a place where you could be sure of one thing at least—Charlie Brown was no joke there!


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